The World Is Getting Better

A lot of news is negative. It’s no one’s fault; we’re just more sensitive to shocking stories and when things go right they tend to go right slowly, but when things go wrong they tend to go wrong all at once and in spectacular, attention-grabbing, fashion.

Sadly that means that the consistent progress humanity has made across many of its endeavours (except arguably climate change) often goes unnoticed, or forgotten.

The world still has a myriad of problems, it always will, and we need to tackle them with more energy than ever. But how many times have you heard “things are getting worse” or “things are worse than they were before”. Incredibly, it’s a majority view and for the most part it couldn’t be more wrong.

Inspired partly by the book Factfulness, the Gapminder foundation and the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this series of charts highlights just 8 of the ways that life has improved for millions of people over the last 200 or so years.

We’re not saying everything is fine. We’re saying hey, a lot of people have done a lot of good in recent history, let’s try and do some more.

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In 1975 roughly half of the world lived in extreme poverty. Since then, poverty has reduced dramatically and today that number is closer to 10%. That improvement has drastically improved outcomes for life expectancy as well. In 1960, average global life expectancy at birth was 52 years (Source: World Bank). Today the average is closer to 72, meaning that in just over half a century humanity has managed to add 20 years to the typical lifespan.

Poverty has many faces, and it’s not just about income or resources, but if one fact sticks with you from this series we would hope it’s this: 200 years ago almost the entire planet lived in extreme poverty. Today the opposite is true.

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Part of the reason for the reduction in extreme poverty is a focus on education. In the last century the proportion of the population that can read and write has skyrocketed. More people than ever are literate, and the most exciting thing is that the benefits of that are going to be accrued for many years to come, across many generations.

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Better fertilisers, more consistent irrigation, cross-breeding and more efficient farming machinery have all contributed to an almost 3x improvement in cereal yields since 1961. That improvement wasn’t just an unexpected surprise, but something of a necessity given the scarcity of unused land that has good agricultural potential.

In future, even better crops will be needed. The World Resources Institute estimates that there is a 56 percent food gap between crop calories produced in 2010 and those needed in 2050.

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We posted this chart a while back, but the data behind it continues to blow our mind. Since 1990, the improvements in infant mortality rates have cumulatively saved the lives of more than 120 million children.

The preservation of life is incredible enough in itself, but infant mortality is a particularly powerful measure because it implies progress in a number of broader areas. Healthier children usually mean improvements in nutrition, healthcare, education, shelter, hygiene and many more.

Note: Infant mortality rate here is defined as the share of children, born alive, who die before they are five years old.

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One common misconception is that if mortality rates fall dramatically, then won’t we quickly overpopulate and begin the cycle of poverty all over again?

Whilst intuitively that might make sense, it’s not actually the case. As the chart shows, the fertility rate (births per woman) has fallen drastically in the last 50 years. As people move out of poverty they typically have fewer children as they can more easily plan their family and can be more certain that those children will live beyond the age of 5.

The point here is saving lives doesn’t cause overpopulation! Bill Gates explains this phenomenon brilliantly in this video.

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At the height of the Cold War nuclear armageddon looked almost like an inevitability. The escalation in nuclear arsenals between the United States and The Soviet Union (now Russia) defined much of the post World War period.

However, since peaking in the late 1980s, the number of nuclear warheads has decreased in every single year. The latest numbers from the FAS suggest that there are approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads in the inventory of the nuclear powers, down from over 64,000 in 1986.

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In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to give equal voting rights to both men and women. The incredible work of the suffragette movement has now spread across the world, and as of the latest count, 194 countries now have equal voting rights (Source: Gapminder).

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The good news has come in other ways as well. In 1970 more than three quarters of the US population believed same-sex relations were “always” or “almost always” wrong. Today, those answers are fortunately in the minority.

We hope you enjoyed these charts and would love if you shared them with friends and family. We only had space for 8 charts, but there was no shortage of good news, the shortlist alone was 25+.

The late Hans Rosling, who wrote the book Factfulness that inspired many of these charts, once described himself as a “possibilist”, rather than an “optimist”. He described being a possibilist as:

“someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible”

We like that definition. Not blind optimism for the sake of it, but optimism because… just look at what has already been done.

David Crowther